Over the weekend, Bari Weiss, a friend who writes for the New York Times, appeared on Bill Maher’s HBO show. Bari was bat mitzvahed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh; she knew many of those who were shot and killed by a white supremacist two weeks ago. Her writing on the subject has been beautiful; she’s obviously both raw and real about the situation.
On Maher’s show, she made a number of good points about anti-Semitism more broadly and its rising threat both in the United States and across the world. But then she concluded with this calculation:
One thing that I think was made stark this week is that there are many Jews, including Jews that I know, who have liked many of Trump’s policies regarding Israel and the Middle East . . . but I hope this week that American Jews have woken up to the price of that bargain. They have traded policies that they like for the values that have sustained the Jewish people and frankly, this country, for forever. Welcoming the stranger, dignity for all human beings, equality under the law, respect for dissent, love of truth, these are the things we are losing under this president, and no policy is worth that price.
I have a number of problems with this statement.
To start, the part with which I agree: There’s no justification for Trump’s callous disregard for the truth, which I’ve criticized routinely. Nor is there justification for Trump’s treatment of the alt-Right from 2015 to 2017.
But Bari is wrong in two areas: First, she suggests that Trump presents a unique threat to Jews and Jewish values that outweighs the threat to Jews from other arenas; second, she links Judaism with her preferred immigration policies.
Regarding Jewish values: Judaism does emphasize welcoming the stranger, but nothing in Jewish law or philosophy supports the idea that illegal immigration must be tolerated, or that every refugee must be taken in by a sovereign nation. On the same note, a good number of secular Jews of the political Left (this is explicitly not directed at Bari, who has been Jewishly oriented for her entire life) have somehow discovered that they now get to act as spokespeople for Jewish positions, because the white supremacist who shot up the Tree of Life was in favor of immigration restrictions. That’s nonsense. Jewish support for refugees can come through a variety of methods, but conflating that support for state support is a philosophical and moral overstatement. None of this means that Trump hasn’t exaggerated the threat of the migrant caravan — he has engaged in demagoguery. But the suggestion that Judaism requires opposition to Trump’s overall immigration policy lacks support.
Furthermore, fully rational people can make a nonracial case for immigration restrictions. Again, Trump’s demagoguery is inappropriate and terrible. But it is not irrational to want refugees vetted for their willingness to assimilate to American values. It is not racist to want to know whether immigrants are trying to enter the United States for true asylum or for economic reasons. It is not bigoted to ask about the criminal backgrounds of people trying to walk across America’s border. It is not cruel to ask about the economic impact on the United States of people seeking to enter.
Bari seems to suggest here that Jews in America have somehow traded Jewish life for the sake of Trump’s Israel policy. I think she phrased this badly. I doubt she actually believes, as Julia Ioffe apparently does, that Jews who support Trump politically are somehow responsible for the death of Jews in Pittsburgh. That would be a bizarre and immoral accusation. Not a single Jew in America made the calculation that it would be worth sacrificing Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue to move the embassy to Jerusalem. Not one.
And more important, Jews supporting Trump do not believe that Trump’s Middle East policy justifies his lies and his nastiness, any more than Democrats in 1998 broadly believed that Bill Clinton’s economic policy excused his sexual abuse of women. Two things can be true at once. Voting for Trump is not an automatic endorsement of his worst aspects. If a pristine character were a requirement for holding office, voters would find hardly any major national candidates they could support. I know the threat of the alt-Right and about President Trump winking and nodding at its membership — I probably wrote more about it in 2016 than anyone else in America.
Most important, however, it is absolutely short-sighted to suggest that voting Democratic punishes the Republican party and thereby strikes a blow at anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism, as I wrote last week, cannot be relegated to merely another form of bigotry in the intersectional quilt; it is a unique conspiracy theory that runs the gamut from hatred of Jews in Israel to targeting of shuls in Paris to beating of Jews in New York City. We must therefore assess the threat of anti-Semitism holistically. This requires an analysis of the three chief types of anti-Semitism.
1) Right-Wing Anti-Semitism: This is anti-Semitism rooted in the theory that Jews are attempting to destroy borders, control economies, and undermine civilizational values through global priorities, all the while they support the Jewish state in Israel. This is the version of anti-Semitism that drove the Tree of Life massacre. It is also this form of anti-Semitism that was forwarded in 2015 and 2016 when President Trump refused to condemn the alt-Right.
2) Left-Wing Anti-Semitism: This is anti-Semitism rooted in the theory that Jews are disproportionately successful because they are beneficiaries of the current structures of power; Jews are the foundation of those hierarchies and therefore must be destroyed.
3) Radical Muslim Anti-Semitism: This is anti-Semitism rooted in the belief that Jews are members of a lesser religion, preaching against the true religion, and exploiters of the oppressed Muslims of the Middle East.
It is likely true that the greatest threat to American shuls and Jewish schools comes from right-wing anti-Semitism. That was true before Trump, and it will probably remain true after Trump. In 1999, a white supremacist shot up the West Valley JCC some 25 minutes from my home; in 2009, a white supremacist shot up the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; in 2014, a white supremacist shot up the JCC in Kansas City.
These are not the only anti-Semitic attacks in the United States, however. In 1991, the Crown Heights riots, in which MSNBC’s Al Sharpton played a crucial role, ended with the murder of an Orthodox Jew. In 1994, a van filled with Orthodox Jews was shot at by a radical Muslim. In 2002, a radical Muslim shot up the El Al counter at LAX airport, murdering a member of my community. In 2006, a radical Muslim shot up the Seattle Jewish Federation.
Suffice it to say, all three forms of anti-Semitism have blood on their hands.
When it comes to global threats against Jews, however, the actual problem becomes clearer. In modern politics, the left-wing anti-Semites and radical Muslim anti-Semites have made common cause throughout Europe. Left-wing anti-Semitism has also made far deeper inroads in the Democratic party and in mainstream left-wing European parties than right-wing anti-Semitism has made in the Republican party in the United States. In fact, that’s not a close call.
Jews have been fleeing Europe at record rates thanks to the rise of radical Muslim anti-Semitism, abetted by left-wing anti-Semitism, which pushes for more radical Muslim immigration and more ire against Israel and Jews more broadly. The Democratic party today hosts anti-Semites such as Keith Ellison in top positions; Linda Sarsour is a welcome ally; Louis Farrakhan can still appear onstage with Bill Clinton. Even its mainstream members, such as Andrew Gillum, routinely play footsie with anti-Semitic groups targeting Israel for destruction; Barack Obama spent his latter presidential years lying on behalf of the Iranian regime in order to promulgate a nuclear deal that puts the existence of the Jewish state itself in jeopardy.
So is voting for that Democratic party to punish Trump a viable strategy? Really?
Calling out one form of anti-Semitism while ignoring others doesn’t effectively fight anti-Semitism. Precisely the opposite: Pretending that Trump is the fountainhead of true threats to the Jews is both globally ignorant and domestically myopic. None of that is a defense of Trump’s egregious conduct toward the alt-Right from 2015 to 2017. But it is a recognition that in today’s politics, the anti-Semites aren’t restricted to one side of the aisle – and, in fact, they’re statistically more prominent on the left than on the right.